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The Impact of Story Telling on Corporate Culture

Category : Business Insights

Myths, legends and authentic stories abound in visionary organizations. Some see great instructional value in story telling; it is said that storytelling is fundamental to informal learning and that 70% of the skills, information and competence in the workplace is acquired through informal learning. Stories build trust, raise vital issues and communicate more effectively than cold analysis of the organization’s vision and core values to its stakeholders. Social service organizations like World Vision India and Cry put them to good use in India. The medical profession recognizes the healing attributes of story telling. So do religious leaders.

Even in formal learning, the cases taught at business schools resemble story telling and these are used for analysis, generation of solutions and understanding of intricate issues… Publications like the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal have published articles on the uses of business story telling. At business schools in the U S, offering courses in story telling for leaders is a growing practice.

I would like to refer to a book on the subject: AROUND THE CORPORATE CAMPFIRE- How Great Leaders Use Stories To Inspire Success by Evelyn Clark:
.The book is not a collection of exciting stories, it is one that forcefully demonstrates how story telling can be a powerful leadership tool. Evelyn Clarke, who moved from an unexciting career in corporate public relations to corporate storytelling gives us an account of such storytelling at some of the great US business houses- Nike, South West Airlines, Kodak, 3M, FedEx , Medtronic – and at some lesser known ones. Of course, the purpose and nature of story telling vary greatly among these organizations. Nike uses stories to inspire dedication to company mission. 3M uses them to clarify its mission. Reaching a consensus is the principal aim at REI, while Eastman Kodak focuses on honouring tradition and FedEx on recognizing success. Others practise storytelling to reinforce the core values, to cope with emotions in a crisis, to celebrate success, to build personal connections among management and staff or to sell a product/ service. What is common to all these companies is the use of stories in conveying information, sharing knowledge and building a strong cohesive corporate culture.

Nike deliberately uses stories as a leadership tool realizing that ‘the stories you tell about the past shape your future.’ The company designates its senior executives as corporate storytellers. The company’s mission was to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”. (And Nike’s definition: ‘if you have a body you are an athlete.’) Stories are carefully collected and circulated about employee involvement in almost anything great that has happened, ranging from concern for ecology to labour issues including child labour in its overseas factories, product innovation and service excellence. Nike believes that these have had a powerful role to play in keeping the company’s collective soul withstand the toughest of challenges.

At 3M, the legends are aimed at creating a culture of employee inventiveness, career opportunities and continuous growth. Stories are aplenty of tolerating small mistakes on the road to big discoveries. Communication through story telling is so pervasive at 3M that the narrative approach extends to long range planning. The hero stories are presented at the company website.

At Medtronic, known for its invention of the cardiac pace maker, healing stories inspire employees to commitment and a great sense of loyalty. Consider the story of Gary Prazac who at 49 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Before long he looked like an old man, he says, shuffling along with a cane and wearing a deadpan look called Parkinson’s mask. Once at an airport, his legs were so spastic and frozen that he was unable to move from his chair and had, to his horror, to see his plane take off. A ray of hope came only with the implantation of a newly discovered Medtronic deep-brain- stimulating device that reversed symptoms that lasted ten long years and was to him nothing short of a miracle. Such personal healing stories are told every December by six different patients and their physicians at Medtronic’s holiday event. One can well imagine the impact this would have on the employees and on thousands who watch it live on television.

At FedEx almost every employee can recall how the Chairman and President, Fred Smith got his start, of his obsession with time and speed and how he based his company on the concept of overnight delivery that he had outlined in a Harvard MBA paper. The idea itself was not well received by his professor. Undeterred, Smith went ahead to create business history. FedEx replicates as many stories as it can in a variety of ways and communicate them to employees through its Intranet. Many of these revolve round the winners of their Purple Promise Award… Like the story of a winner who borrowed a customer’s bicycle when his van broke down and cycled 10 miles up a hill to complete deliveries on time.

Story telling at South West Airlines promotes management/ employee teamwork. Stories often relate to the low unit labour costs and to the principal reason for it- employees’ willingness to volunteer for tasks outside their formal responsibilities. Indeed the company boasts of the impact this had on its safety record, customer satisfaction rating and lower-than-industry operational costs that saw it through the worst crises US airlines have been through.

The story of REI ( Recreational Equipment Inc) is one of how from small beginnings the company became premier supplier of mountain climbing gear and became the largest consumer cooperative in the US. More interestingly, following a bad phase the company spent 18 months in collective introspection. Inspired by Collins’ and Porras’ book Built to Last, this introspection helped the company discover its core values and to ways of enacting them.

An effective story, Clark says, should be authentic revealing the organization’s true personality. A good story must touch the heart and the audience must be able to identify itself with the main character. It must be focussed on a clear objective and for this must be carefully selected, constructed and delivered. It must help all the stakeholders to articulate the company’s core values. Visionary companies lead the way.

Extraordinary acts of heroism by individuals abound in our organizations. However, these often remain islands of excellence, unnoticed and unsung and sometimes even unrewarded. Businesspersons who read this book will perhaps be motivated to create their own heroes and build excellent corporate stories.

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